Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas spoke at the Gordon Institute of Business Science on Monday. There are five takeaways from the event:
1. There is ... no fear!
National Treasury has been in the crosshairs of rentseekers for a good couple of years — it got so bad the Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan issued a statement last year asking the public to protect it. It's also no state secret that the technocrats and accountants at 40 Church Square, Treasury's HQ in Pretoria, aren't President Jacob Zuma's faves and the rumour mill is still whispering that Jonas might be dismissed. But Jonas spoke openly and honestly about state capture, the lack of leadership and privatisation. "I hope I keep my job!" he quipped. But he spoke like a man liberated from the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head.
2. "Saxonwold follows me everywhere!"
Jonas famously batted away an alleged offer from the Guptas that they could make him finance minister as well as give him R600,000 if he would accept. He questioned the manner in which his (and, by extension, the allegations publicly made by Vytjie Mentor and Themba Maseko) allegations were handled by the African National Congress (ANC). "How can it be that the media reports on it and there is no consequences, nothing happens?" he asked. State capture and questions about it won't go away.
3. Fiscal responsibility is a real thing
Treasury has been accused by, among others, Nomvula Mokonyane, the Minister of Water Affairs and Sanitation, and Bathabile Dlamini, the Minister of Social Development, of obstructing developmental programmes and projects. Jonas, like he and his colleagues did during the Budget week last month, explained that fiscal responsibility "is a real thing". Populism and rhetoric is dangerous and "like playing with a grenade", he said. "How you manage your fiscus, the balance between revenue and expenditure, how much you borrow ... those are real issues, you can't deal with it in a populist way." Managing the public purse is a complicated job. There's no room for amateurs.
4. "Leadership needed, apply within"
Jonas repeatedly returned to the issue of leadership and what type of leadership the country needs. He started his remarks by saying the country had "remarkable leadership" in the early 1990s and that it must now again come to the fore. He then intimated that we should look beyond the ANC for leadership when answering questions about the ANC's policy discussion documents: "The party plays an important role, but they aren't the only driver of debate." A life beyond Luthuli House? Is that even possible?
5. The wood for the trees
"One of the things we need to start doing as a country ... is beginning to connect the dots. There are many things happening. We need to ask why Pravin (Gordhan) was charged, and then why those charges were dropped ... we need to ask how does this relate? What picture does this show South Africa? What is the political moment? The events might be many, but they're telling a certain story. What is that story? What are these things telling us about the state of the nation?" Jonas said. The trick is to connect the right dots. But that there are enough to connect cannot be denied.